Kevin Durant and the puzzling career of a vulnerable NBA legend

·9 min read

I'm so confused by Kevin Durant, which I think is why I like him. And why so many people dislike him.

For all his greatness, LeBron James is quite easy to figure out. He wants to be considered the greatest basketball player in history, and for that he needs championships. Six of them, to be exact, and even then we may not give him his due because of the way he has gone about it. That hasn't stopped him from trying.

There is a formula to what James has done. He leverages every asset his team has, present and future, to give himself the best chance to win in the moment, and when he has extracted every ounce of value, he goes to the next team. It has yielded four titles for his three different franchises, so no one should be aggrieved.

There is no such method to Durant's madness. Make no mistake, he wants to be great at basketball. The action is the juice. He just doesn't much care whether we think he is. Or maybe he does. Too much. And it hasn't worked out for him. He is everything to all people. He is us. Some people see him as a villainous snake. I tend to think of him as a tragic hero. That probably says a lot more about us than it does him.

Ultimately, Kevin Durant is as human a legend as the NBA has ever seen. He should be championed for it.

Sure, he has asked out of a mess he helped make on the Brooklyn Nets. He isn't the first to do so, and he won't be the last. He bears responsibility for that. It won't come in the form of financial or professional ostracism, so we mark it as a strike against his legacy, and he takes offense to that. It doesn't change what he has done, but finding common ground between us might change how we think of what he has done.

Many of Durant's peers in the pantheon are easily pegged. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Tim Duncan, they never changed teams. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon might as well have because we never talk about their respective tenures with the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors. They won where they started. We like that. We can easily digest that. Loyalty is a virtue. It is why we appreciate so much what Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry did these past two years.

Wilt Chamberlain and petulant exits

Moses Malone was traded everywhere he went for the first 14 years of his career. The Portland Trail Blazers traded him because they had Bill Walton. The Buffalo Braves traded him because they had Bob McAdoo. The Houston Rockets traded him because a car salesman didn't want to pay Malone more than he had just paid for the franchise. The Philadelphia 76ers traded him because they instead inexplicably wanted Jeff Ruland. Malone's legacy suffered for it, but we pin the blame on the teams, not the man. Simple enough.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted off the Bucks because, "Culturally, what I'm about and what Milwaukee is about are two different things." Wisconsinites might not have liked that answer, but he delivered them a title, and a life otherwise spent between New York and Los Angeles makes sense of it for the rest of us.

The Cincinnati Royals traded Oscar Robertson because he didn't get along with former rival turned new coach Bob Cousy, and the team regretfully sided with the latter, who tore down the roster and eventually forced the franchise's move to Kansas City. Nobody holds that against Robertson, at least not anymore.

Wilt Chamberlain, on the other hand, threatened to quit at every turn until he finished his career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He wanted more money from the San Francisco Warriors, who were losing games and fans, so he hogged the ball, and they sent him to Philadelphia. He wanted more money and a bigger stage in Los Angeles, so he stopped shooting in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and the Sixers sent him to the Lakers.

Chamberlain was a pioneer of the petulant exit that has been popularized by Durant's superstar teammates on the Nets. Kyrie Irving burned bridges with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics before taking his torch to Brooklyn, where James Harden quit on his second team in as many years. Durant has done neither, which makes his partnership with them all the more puzzling. You will recall Durant played through pain and tore his Achilles trying to lead the Golden State Warriors to a third straight title. He also threw the Warriors a bone on his way out the door, agreeing to a sign-and-trade that ultimately helped them win another ring.

He didn't have to do any of that, but he did, and for that humanity he has been rewarded with ridicule because he prioritized his friendship with Irving over a professional relationship with Curry. It makes little sense from a basketball perspective, at least until you remember he was also lambasted for joining the 73-win Warriors in the first place. He can't win, and that is a feeling to which we should be able to relate. But we don't because we're too busy debating and discrediting the merit of the manner in which he won.

Kevin Durant wants to leave a third NBA team in pursuit of another chapter. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant wants to leave a third NBA team in pursuit of another chapter. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant ventures into the void

Durant left Russell Westbrook and their Oklahoma City Thunder in search of basketball nirvana and found it in Oakland. Only, his contributions to the greatest team ever assembled are lost to a bus-riding discussion.

He was between draining two game-sealing, series-swinging daggers and consecutive Finals MVP awards when he told our Chris Haynes, "After winning that championship, I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t. That’s when I realized in the offseason that the only thing that matters is this game and how much work you put into it." The Warriors belonged to Curry, not Durant.

If everyone spends the first nine years of your career telling you a championship stands between you and certifiable greatness, and then when you win a title, the conversation turns to wondering whether you did it The Right Way, you too might find an emptiness inside. We might think it odd Durant did not foresee this discussion when he left the Thunder for the team that just beat him in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, but he was 27 years old when he moved to Golden State in 2016. Did you have it all figured out by then? If you think you did, you might lack the emotional depth Durant has revealed to us over the years.

"I mean, I’m crazy about winning, don’t get me wrong," Durant told ESPN after the second title. "I’m just not obsessed with winning championships. It’s not the only reason I play. I play for my individual growth."

Shaquille O'Neal and a clash of personality

The game and his growth are all that matters to Durant in his career now because otherwise he would be shoving trophies into a hole we created for him and keep digging deeper. There are plenty of other reasons why pantheon players have changed teams for decades. Financials and location are chief among them.

Shaquille O'Neal left the Orlando Magic in free agency because they and their fans lowballed and criticized him and he too preferred the bright lights of L.A. After leading the Lakers to three titles, he asked for a trade because they sided with Bryant in a feud between teammates. Two years after helping the Miami Heat to a championship, O'Neal's feud with executive Pat Riley got him traded to the Phoenix Suns. A combination of O'Neal's advancing age and declining production led him to two more teams in his final two seasons.

O'Neal's career is the closest facsimile we have to Durant's among modern pantheon players, even as Shaq participates in the bus-riding discussion. Neither money nor locale appear to be Durant's primary motivation for wanting out of Golden State or Brooklyn, since max contracts are a standing offer for his services and he has picked his last two locales, but feelings are involved in a similar fashion to O'Neal.

You just won't see Durant inserting Kyrie's name for Kobe's in O'Neal's infamous "Tell me how my ass tastes" freestyle at a New York City nightclub. Durant's clashes are an internal struggle with the game and his growth. Westbrook's high-usage, low-efficiency brand of basketball became an issue for Durant in Oklahoma City. Curry's grip on the Golden State dynasty undoubtedly weighed on his ego. It was Westbrook and Draymond Green who brought those vulnerabilities to the public space, not Durant.

Kevin Durant emerges from the void

Durant left the Warriors for the Nets in hopes of building basketball bliss on his own. He hand-picked Irving and Harden as his wingmen, and they let him down. That has to be his reason for wanting out of Brooklyn. Irving refused the COVID-19 vaccine, Harden asked out, and then Irving asked out, only he could not find a proper suitor, mostly because he is utterly unreliable, so he is staying. For now. That is what happened. To believe Durant now wants out for any other reason is to believe he is oblivious to the business of basketball.

Naiveté is the bane of Durant's basketball existence, not business acumen. He has built an all-time career. He just didn't understand how he would be perceived in Oklahoma City when he left or how he would be perceived in Golden State when he arrived or how Brooklyn could backfire when he put all his faith in Irving.

For human error, not basketball mistakes, Durant is mocked as a ring chaser, a bus rider, a cupcake and a snake. He is the sensitive superstar the social media age deserves, down to the burner account, and we can't even recognize it. It can be no coincidence the iPhone was invented the year Durant was drafted. The world is changing faster than we can handle, yet we expect him to, just because he's amazing at basketball.

We built these constructs, not him, and he is left to escape each box into which we stuff his career. Perhaps you prefer a simpler superstar. Durant's predecessors were certainly easier to figure out. His legacy will take some time to unpack. That is our job, not his. He is still in pursuit of personal and professional growth, and that is why he wants out of Brooklyn. I think. If only we could all find similar solace in what really matters.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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